The Brooklyn Visual Heritage Website: Brooklyn’s Museums and Libraries Collaborate for Project CHART
Tula Giannini, Pratt Institute, USA, Jonathan Bowen, London South Bank University, UK
The Brooklyn Visual Heritage website (http://brooklynvisualheritage.org) represents a new visual resource for cultural heritage. The site was created as part of Project CHART (Cultural Heritage, Access, Research and Technology), a three-year collaborative project (2010-2013) funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) between Pratt School of Information and Library Science and three of New York’s leading cultural Institutions, the Brooklyn Historical Society, Brooklyn Museum, and Brooklyn Public Library. This paper examines the Brooklyn Visual Heritage website from the diverse perspectives of these cultural institutions and the communities they serve, from geographic communities to those of scholars, historians, and educators, while also addressing technical aspects of user experience and the challenges of cross institutional collaboration. We consider questions of shared decision-making on website design, public access and use as well as issues regarding how the BVH collections will continue to grow, while expanding the use of social media to promote greater community participation as part of a sustainable model.
Keywords: Visual resources, cultural heritage, online community, project collaboration, museums and libraries, New York
“First Rule of Collaboration: If you can’t link to it, it didn’t happen.” – Joseph Scott, 2010
Collaboration has many challenges but also significant rewards when successful. The Internet in general and World Wide Web in particular enable many opportunities for collaborative synergy between cultural organizations which were previously not feasible. It is now possible to form virtual communities that can collaborate effectively, irrespective of geographical location (Bowen & Borda, 2011), including in the area of museums (Beler et al., 2004). An early example in the museums field was the Virtual Library museums pages (VLmp), a worldwide directory of online museums, initiated in 1994, now twenty years ago (Bowen, 1997a&b). This created a community of people and organizations interested in online information provision about museums, including the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and other national museum bodies (Bowen, 1997a&b). Virtual communities can be formed at a variety of levels and in various situations. A more geographically-focused example is that of Dulwich OnView (http://dulwichonview.org.uk), an online magazine blog that evolved from the local community in an informal association with Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London, UK (Beazley et al., 2010). The organic nature of the blog (based on WordPress) was recognized as an alternative marketing mechanism by DPG and continues to run using entirely volunteer effort. The site won a Museums and the Web conference Best of the Web award in 2010 as the “Best Small Site”.
On a slightly larger scale geographically, Twitter has been used to aid in improving awareness and fund raising for Bletchley Park, the UK code-breaking site during World War II, now open to the public as a museum (Black et al., 2010). This demonstrated that it is possible to reach a large community of people interested in what has become to be recognized as an important piece of nationally significant cultural heritage at little or no of the traditional marketing costs for this kind of fund-raising effort.
Communities are often centered on interests or professional practice. Bound for South Australia (http://boundforsouthaustralia.net.au) provides a digital re-creation of early 19th-century sea voyages that established the British Province of South Australia, using source material from the time, and has aimed at creating a blog-based community with interest in this historical story (Peacock et al., 2012). The Museum Computer Network (MCN) of museum professionals is another example that has been studied recently (Marty et al., 2013), in which a “Community of Practice” (CoP) is involved.
Wiki-based communities are increasingly widespread and successful. The Museums Wiki (http://museums.wikia.com) provides general museum information, including a record of the earlier Virtual Library museums pages mentioned above, produced entirely through volunteer effort (Bowen et al., 2007). Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org) provides much information on museums, generated by its own large community of editors worldwide. The associated Wikimedia Commons resource (https://commons.wikimedia.org) has many images relating to museums that are freely available for use (e.g., see Figure 4 later). In particular, the GLAM-WIKI (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) project encourages museums to cooperate with this community effort in an altruistic manner (http://outreach.wikimedia.org/wiki/GLAM). There are also examples of more local efforts at producing “commons” resources in a collaborative manner. For example, in San Diego, USA, the Bilbao Park Commons is a result of collaboration among several geographically co-located museums (http://www.balboaparkcommons.org).
Communities built from individuals can be grown organically, often with an enthusiastic core of people and little or no financial support. Collaborations involving organizations need to be created on a much more formal basis, typically with a funded project as its basis to provide motivation and impetus for the participants. However, starting such cooperations has major barriers, requiring significant effort and understanding of the issues involved, with many financial considerations to be understood and agreed. Nonetheless, persistence in starting such projects can produce very worthwhile collaborative results that could be produced in no other way if seen through to fruition. The rest of this paper describes such a collaboration for a geographically localized project based around the digitization of photographs, where the funded development phase has been completed and wider community building is now possible.
The Brooklyn Visual Heritage (BVH) site (http://brooklynvisualheritage.org, see Figure 1 above) was created as a result of Project CHART (Cultural Heritage, Access, Research and Technology), a three-year collaborative effort (2010-2013) between the Pratt Institute School of Information and Library Science (Pratt-SILS, http://www.pratt.edu/sils, see Figure 2), and three of New York’s leading cultural institutions in Brooklyn: the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS, http://www.brooklynhistory.org, see Figure 3), Brooklyn Museum (BM, http://www.brooklynmuseum.org, see Figure 4), and Brooklyn Public Library (BPL, http://www.bklynpubliclibrary.org, see Figure 5). With project funding of about a million dollars from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS, http://www.imls.gov), a federal agency of the US government, the project’s team of museum, library and archives staff, together with Pratt postgraduate students, worked together to digitize and provide access to museum and library collections that have not been previously available, and by the end of the project, about 13,500 images had been digitized.
Designed within the broad context of today’s global information landscape, the site launched in November 2012 and is now providing free public access to this newly digitized corpus of thousands of 19th and 20th century historic photographs of Brooklyn. Additionally, through usability testing in Pratt’s Cultural Informatics Lab, the user interface has been improved. To meet the educational goals of Project CHART, Pratt developed a new Digital Management for Cultural Heritage postgraduate program designed to prepare students for careers in libraries, archives and museums in the digital world. A total of 18 CHART students with IMLS scholarship funding completed the program’s six 3-credit courses as part of their Masters in Library and Information Science (MSLIS) as well as two-semester internships at partner institutions and graduated with their MSLIS degree.
We explore the impact of BVH in the physical and virtual partner institutions, together with the way in which it challenged them to look more closely at the relationship between digital and real cultural heritage. Exemplified broadly by Europeana, the European Union’s collaborative for digital culture, (http://www.europeana.eu) and the latest efforts in the US for the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA, http://dp.la), Project CHART and BVH bring to the fore the importance of collaboration for public benefit through the use of digital tools and technology that enhance user experience and education, as well as encouraging user interaction while providing scholars and historians with fresh material to create new works.
Challenges of Working Collaboratively across Diverse Institutions
Project collaboration across cultural institutions generally requires that they work in new ways that go beyond their regular activities and institutional boundaries to achieve shared goals and results. Web-based projects as BVH can provide special opportunities that enable and encourage collaboration because their place or zone resides in virtual real estate representing newly created space where project visitors and users participate. Collaboration also can expand institutional resources and serve to support innovation and creativity and as well introduce new models for programs and exhibitions. While conceptually the idea of collaboration and sharing is enticing to most institutions, the reality of working as partners presents challenges that often seem daunting. Since 2005, Pratt-SILS (funded by IMLS grants written and directed by Dr. Giannini) has carried-out projects partnering Brooklyn’s leading cultural institutions (BHS, BM and BPL). Drawing on this experience, we offer perspectives on some of the challenges we faced and how we met them.
Building Relationships and Community
In many ways, Project CHART represents a culminating project in that it was preceded by four IMLS funded three-year projects between Pratt-SILS (School of Information and Library Sciences) and each of its CHART partners individually. Beginning with PULSE (Public Urban Libraries Service Education) with BPL in 2004, to GATEWAI (Graduate Archives Training and Education, Work and Information) in 2005 with BHS, followed by M-LEAD (Museum Library Education and Digitization) in 2008 with BM and finally in 2010, we initiated Project CHART, which brought together our three past partners and through which we created the Brooklyn Visual Heritage website. Although CHART was completed in 2013, BVH continues to grow and be sustained. Pratt-SILS continues its institutional collaborations through a 2012 IMLS grant, M-LEAD-TWO (Technology-Web- Online), for which we are partnering with BM, Frick and NYARC (New York Art Resources Consortium).
From working collaboratively over a ten-year period, we can observe a few basic principles of cross institutional work that have guided us:
- Establish partner relationships built on friendship, trust, mutual values and interests.
- Design a project based on a shared vision that speaks to the goals of the partners, a potential funding agency, and as well to the broader goal of making contributions to society.
- Apply for and obtain a project grant. In doing so, consider the funding agency as a project partner. Since museum budgets rarely include funds for new projects, seeking funding is generally a requirement for such projects, as is creating projects that are innovative, recognizing that regular activities are not likely to attract outside support.
- Work through consensus building and a willingness to accommodate partner differences.
- Identify users and communities that your project can serve and reflect community perspectives in project design and outreach.
- Plan for project sustainability and change over time. (To date, the plan and design for the BVH continues to support growth and change.)
Digitization and its Goals
A 2008 report by OCLC (Online Computer Library Center, http://www.oclc.org) on collaboration among libraries, archives and museums (Zorich, 2008) brings attention to the benefits of collaboration across large academic library systems by way of digital content sharing for the purpose of financial savings through resource sharing (OCLC, 2011). On the other hand, the Smithsonian Institution’s 2010-2015 Digitization Strategic Plan (Smithsonian, 2010) demonstrates that a large scale digitization project across a major museum system, strengthens and supports the values of open access, sharing knowledge, education, and preservation, placing the outcomes of “Creating a Digital Smithsonian,” at the heart of democratic principles and process.
These examples of digitization look at intra-institutional collaboration and its benefits, while Project CHART is about collaboration across four independent diverse institutions with distinct purposes: a museum, a library, a historical society, and an academic institution. The driver of this collaboration was in the first instance related to building and connecting the Brooklyn cultural heritage community, in order to achieve greater participation and interaction, to serve educational and research needs of the Brooklyn community, to raise the visibility of collections, to encourage and attract new audiences, and to expand partner membership through outreach to other Brooklyn cultural institutions. Thus, BVH is designed to link with other institutions and digital resource projects and contribute to the broader goals of providing global access through linked open data.
As the international cultural community now moves towards creating a parallel universe of digital museums and libraries that serves equally the physical museum together with our real and virtual lives, traditional physical boundaries of institutions blur so that users increasingly identify themselves with a post-institutional community framework. Institutions are embracing this trend more and more as seen in the recent (March 2013) partnership announced between the Smithsonian Institution and the Digital Public Library of American (DPLA) to provide links to its content and to link its digital collections to the DPLA network (O’Brien, 2013).
Creating Digital Resources to Expand the Reach of Museum Libraries
Although museum libraries have traditionally been viewed as mainly supporting curatorial object research, BVH sets the stage for the library to take on new roles in the museum’s digital and virtual life, opening pathways to work in new and meaningful ways with museum curatorial and technical departments, such as digital media, digital asset management, and e-publishing. As a new digital source, BVH also serves to support future collaborations and resource sharing with Brooklyn institutions and beyond. Given the increasing use of library ephemera collections such as posters, photographs, and other archival materials, for both real and virtual exhibitions, these digitized materials are sparking new developments in exhibition design where digital objects and information such as archival and ephemeral documents are integrated or embedded within the gallery experience, so that users experience both information as art and art as information. This juxtaposition of the real and virtual amplifies the museum experience, even more so when digital methods and tools are designed for user participation: the exhibition experience becomes more a personal journey of discovery and engagement.
After the launch of BVH, a team of CHART students carried out a usability study to test the BVH website, directed by Craig MacDonald, a SILS fulltime faculty member and User Experience (UX) coordinator (Leeber et al., 2013). 18 participants, mainly with a professional or academic interest in the area, were selected for the study. Three tasks were set for these participants and there were also pre and post-task questionnaires. Through this study, some confusing aspects of the original website were discovered. There were issues with options on the navigation bar, the large size of the subject guide, excessive scrolling, appropriateness of search results, ease of use during advanced searching, recognition of image titles, the presentation of metadata fields, and the information available for guidance on the use of the website. As a result, several changes were made, which improved the site’s user interaction. For the future, accessibility for disabled people is an aspect of the BVH site that could be developed and improved further, although the visual nature of the website means that providing material of interest to blind people, for example, could be challenging (Lisney et al., 2013).
Students also took the lead in devising a social media plan, which included blogs and the use of Google Analytics (http://www.google.com/analytics, see Figure 6) for statistical analysis. The access statistics demonstrate an increase from low numbers in November 2012 to a peak of c. 12,000 “visits” in March 2013, leveling off to around 6,000 per month subsequently. During the period of November 2012 to July 2013, around 76% of users were first-time visitors and the rest were repeat visitors, with over 35,000 people visiting in total (i.e., over 5,000 per month on average). Around 93% of accesses have been from the US and a significant number of these are likely to be from within the New York area, although the statistical information available does not provide this level of detail. It would be interesting although probably difficult to attempt to widen the interest of the website geographically. Cooperation with other similar efforts elsewhere could help with this aspect, in much the same way that cities twin with each other across countries.
A Twitter account for BHV exists (https://twitter.com/Bklyn_Heritage, see Figure 7) and is integrated with the main website. Blog posts on the BVH website (see Figure 8) from personnel based at the institutions involved are also posted on the website to help maintain its dynamic nature. An issue with such facilities is to ensure that they continue to be populated with new posts after funding for the project has ceased.
Commonalities and Convergence
Project CHART served as a vehicle to explore institutional commonalities across our partner institutions. We found that there were indeed many areas of commonality, including collections, community, preservation, curation, exhibitions, audience, user experience, education, and outreach. These areas made connections to the knowledge and skills needed by museum professionals, which in today’s digital environment, converge across museums, libraries and archives. As human activity becomes more consumed by the information revolution, digital culture to an ever greater degree dominates real life, so that we now live in a combined real-virtual world in which these two states of being appear inseparable and interdependent (Bowen & Giannini, 2014).
Looking to the future, from the vantage point of the project, some new challenges emerge. How can we effectively use virtual collections to increase museum audiences, while enriching the real user experience? As digital convergence changes organizational models of work, research, and the creative process, what new models will evolve? Seeing that policies dealing with use of public domain materials and reproduction vary wildly and the fact that there seems to be little agreement on the interpretation of intellectual property law, how will institutions establish a framework of best practice that supports creativity and new works? For example, BVH provides seamless access to images across institutions, while policies for use and cost of reproduction are different for each. Given that many digitization projects end up as digital dust (meaning abandoned and unused digital resources), findability is another challenge. Here, new technologies for linked open data, metadata sharing, and the semantic web show great promise.
While the design of the BVH site is conservative, aiming for elegance and usability (Leeber et al., 2013), one needs to take in account that it is a collaborative digital resource/project site and not an individual institutional site. Thus, it reflects the interaction of the three cultural institutions involved in terms of providing access to collections of historic photographs of Brooklyn from the last quarter of 19th through much of the 20th century and in making available a resource for research. Importantly, viewing BVH photographs at their actual location in their physical form would be quite difficult or even impossible, depending on image condition, locality, and storage. Thus, an important aspect of the online site is the cataloging and metadata for each image, which makes findable thousands of images formerly not publically available or searchable, and which now can be used by the museum for a number of purposes such as publications, exhibitions, user education, research, and creating new works. One good example by Matt Miller, a CHART student who now works at the NYPL (New York Public Library) Labs, is his Geolocation Demo project, which maps BVH images to Brooklyn neighborhoods (http://tinyurl.com/GeolocationDemo).
A New Model Curriculum Prepares for the Digital Future
Collaborative projects between academic and cultural institutions designed to support learning and research can be a catalyst for change and new directions. By creating a digital working area in cyberspace, projects often facilitate the introduction of new ideas and allow institutions to test futuristic models, particularly as projects sit outside of an institution’s regular activity. This scenario played out with Project CHART where students working with museum staff became the drivers of innovation by way of their research for the BVH website and their studies in digital cultural heritage at Pratt. Each of the 18 participating students (six per year) undertook a two-semester internship with a stipend at one of the partner institutions. Their work included digitization, metadata, description, web design, social media, and image selection. Their on-site activity also formed an important component of their studies toward the Masters in Library and Information Science and each student received a tuition scholarship for the new 18-credit Digital Management curriculum as part of the degree program.
Just as museums are reinventing themselves to meet new user expectations for museum education and experience, Pratt-SILS has re-envisioned the knowledge and skills that graduates will need to be effective leaders for 21st century cultural institutions in the new digital management curriculum. As the success of cultural institutions depends increasingly on forward-looking progressive leadership and staff members take on new digital roles indicative of dynamic and relevant institutions, so new educational models focusing on experiential learning and research position graduates well to take on the challenges that these new digital directions present.
Project CHART Activities – It Takes a Village
When Project CHART staff and students convened for regular meetings to discuss plans and progress, one could observe its 20+ stakeholders sitting around the large conference table at BPL who formed the core BVH community. It was here that we shared plans and ideas, received updates on website research and development, and worked towards building consensus on how to progress. Project activities also supported by the IMLS included workshops, attending professional conferences, and partners hosting symposia on current topics and issues. Symposia were open to all Pratt Institute students, as well as the wider museum and library community. The final symposium on “Digital Cultural Heritage and User Experience,” was held at BHS on May 17, 2013. As the culminating CHART event, it attracted an audience of 200 people. The program featured keynote speakers Seb Chan, Cooper Hewitt and Stephen Bury, Frick Reference Library, with morning and afternoon panel sessions moderated by Aaron Cope of Cooper Hewitt and Jonathan Bowen, Birmingham City University (see Figure 9). Full details of the symposium program are available online (http://tinyurl.com/CHARTsymposium).
Sustaining and Advancing Project Achievements
Project CHART demonstrates that student-learning outcomes are substantially improved through a program that integrates academic and experiential learning within a framework of theory and research, together with hands‐on application. From the partners’ viewpoint, we learned that graduate student interns not only provided effort to advance project aspects that are labor intensive, but also brought fresh ideas and new perspectives to the work itself. The synergy created by the project’s community of participants realized unanticipated benefits to all partners as they advanced individual and institutional goals. This was especially apparent in the area of user experience and social media interaction, through which institutions gained new audiences and publicity by way of television features, newspapers, and special events, including BVH photographs on display in the New York Macy’s store windows.
To date, BPL and BHS continue to support BVH, adding new images, using the facility for both on and off site access. At Pratt-SILS, we continue to develop the curriculum for digital management of cultural heritage, which now occupies an important part of the program, and we hope to collaborate on using BVH for learning activities in libraries and museums. From the beginning of the project, we anticipated that our next steps would involve using BVH to enhance and support K-12 education in libraries, archives, and museums as a way of encouraging K-12 students to engage with Brooklyn history. We also aim to connect university students to digital cultural heritage in combination with digital scholarship and services, which has enormous potential to advance student achievement in colleges and universities. To this end, we now have courses in digital humanities, digital scholarship, and user experience.
The project brought partners together as a true learning community, which was at the heart of achieving its main goals of preparing information professionals to serve today’s complex cultural institutions in the digital world, as well as creating the BVH website. Designed to advance both student learning and digital cultural heritage, Project CHART broke new ground in the way it integrated education, experience, and research, which was brought together through partner collaboration on the BVH website. Although at times we traveled an “unCHARTed” path, in the end our success is seen in the project’s sustainable and usable results and in the way in which we overcame our challenges, sparking new ideas and energy, to achieve what otherwise might not have been possible.
This paper has presented a collaborative project in the area of cultural visual heritage that has digitized a significant number of historical photographic images for an important local area (Brooklyn, New York). While such initiatives are relatively common for individual institutions, a unique feature of this project has been to bring together diverse (although geographically co-located) cultural heritage institutions, with their varying approaches to undertaking projects, to produce a unified combination of related resources from these institutions now available online to the general public. Building on institutional commonalities of collections and services, and a dedication to engaging the Brooklyn community in education and culture, Project CHART shows that with collaboration based on shared experience that supports mutual goals and values, large-scale projects can be achieved and sustained. It is hoped that this paper gives some insights into the issues involved and that it encourages others to take on projects following similar endeavors, with the knowledge that the rewards far outweigh the challenges. We also hope to see Brooklyn Visual Heritage continue to build its community of users now that the original funded project has been completed.
Project CHART (Cultural Heritage, Access, Research and Technology) was funded by Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), providing funding for the project partners: the Pratt Institute, the Brooklyn Historical Society, Brooklyn Museum, and Brooklyn Public Library. Jonathan Bowen is grateful for funding as a Visiting Professor at the Pratt Institute during 2012 and for participation at the final Project CHART Symposium in 2013. We are deeply grateful to the IMLS for its generous support of Project CHART which made this rich educational and cultural experience possible.
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